Welcome to the Steplife blog! As a coach, I will work with stepmoms and/or stepcouples to implement tools and techniques that can be used everyday to create a more peaceful, secure, happier steplife. So, my hope is that I can help other stepmoms and stepfamilies to navigate their way through the complex world of remarriage and living with children who are biologically not their own.
So you probably know I just held a stepmom retreat in Ontario. You probably know this because I’ve been talking about it for quite a while! I went through all the stages of planning and organizing an event – excitement and inspiration, overwhelm and uncertainty, back to excitement, stress, excitement, lots of late nights… you get the idea.
As the day approached and all the details were taken care of, all that stress disappeared and I couldn’t wait to meet a fabulous group of stepmoms.
On the Friday morning, I got up at 4am, nursed my baby before taking my first trip away from her (*sob*) and hit the road for an eight-hour drive to the retreat hotel. As I walked into the lobby, I met two of the women who were joining me for the weekend. Their hugs and huge smiles were just the beginning of the support and friendship that weekend. And IT. WAS. AMAZING.
There were social events, workshops and information, guest speakers, laughter, drinks, a few tears, but mostly lots of laughter. Being together in the same space was such a validation of our experiences as stepmothers. Contrary to common belief (“You knew what you were getting into…” God I hate it when people say that), no one truly knows what it’s like to be a stepmom unless or until you ARE a stepmom. And then you need all the love and support in the world to help you figure out HOW to be a stepmom in a way that works for you.
So the entire group of us were able to spend the weekend with other women who GET IT. Even if our situations are different, and they all are, they get it. The parenting challenges, ex-wives, stepkids, financial obligations, courts and lawyers, feeling like an outsider… all of this with the Wicked Stepmother identity casting a shadow over our lives.
To talk about this stuff, this really, really hard stuff, and to know we’re not alone, is key.
And to a point, I knew this circle of support would be powerful. I didn’t know how powerful, but I knew it would have a great impact on all of us. My dear friend and colleague, Ali Wilks of Stepcoupling.com held a retreat last year in beautiful Canmore, Alberta. So we had talked a lot about these events and how important they are.
What I didn’t anticipate as much was the support and connection that came from my fellow stepmom bloggers. This was like another circle of support around us at the retreat, another layer of understanding and women who get it.
All the bloggers I spoke to were so excited about the retreat, and happy to contribute a message of support to the women. Their messages were validation, understanding… other women saying “you got this, and we’ve got you”.
I realized that the more we have these conversations about what it’s like to live in a stepfamily, then more people will understand the dynamics of stepfamily life. Then, and only then, can we truly see change in the world. More fair and balanced court systems, more mental health professionals trained in stepfamily dynamics, more awareness in our education systems, and a change to the Wicked Stepmother narrative. Like the tagline from the retreat, lets change that to Wicked AWESOME Stepmom.
I was in my bedroom. Hubby and baby girl (4 months) were also there. I was trying on some of my pre-pregnancy pants for the first time since giving birth (insert applause here – every woman deserves it. Wowza). I had been feeling pretty good, and so expected to slide those pants right up and effortlessly hook the button through the button hole, smoothing my hands down my legs like a woman in a Special K commercial. You know the one…
Anyway, you can probably see where this is going. It didn’t go to plan.
I heaved and pulled, and finally got them up. Sort of. Then I “did up” the button, and that was just not pretty or comfortable. Disappointed, I released the pants of their irrational task and put them back in the farthest recess of the closet. I said something to my husband to the effect of, “Ugh, I look like crap”, which of course he disputed as a good husband does. In that moment, my eyes caught my daughter’s.
She was smiling up at me from her swing, big brown eyes and gummy mouth. She shook her little monkey toy at me and babbled something of great import. In that instant, my heart sunk and I not only looked like crap (in my eyes), I felt like crap.
I’ve spoken about my experience with eating disorders before (Juggling (or Dropping the Ball)), and how important it is to be aware of our words and how they impact others. As I looked down at my beautiful, babbling baby girl, my heart sunk at the thought of what I was teaching her with my words. Of course, I know that at 4 months she doesn’t understand me, but if I started now…
I can tell you the instant I developed an eating disorder. I can tell you exactly who said what, what I was wearing, the time of day… you get the picture. A seemingly innocent comment that set off a chain of behaviour that left me very ill, depressed, and in need of clinical help. Of course I don’t blame that person. I was clearly vulnerable in some way, and a predisposition had been brewing under the surface for a long time. However, I think it is crucial that we stop and think before we speak. Always.
As a mother, I want to be a safe place for my daughter. I want to be the love, support, warmth, and encouragement for her. I can’t control what others say around her and to her, but I can control what I say around her and to her. And I can control how I react when she comes to me with issues, concerns, tears, anger, frustration, and questions. My stepdaughter (who incidentally is a long, lean athlete, not that it matters) once said that she knew she was chubby. My heart started fluttering fast and I felt a hot flush creep up the back of my neck. Instant anxiety. Needless to say, I ruined an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation with her and instead said firmly, “No you’re not! Don’t say that!” I don’t want to impose my experience on them as young girls and women, but rather I want to use that experience to help them navigate the judgmental parts of society they may (will) encounter. I owe it to them as children. As women. As beautiful babies who are vulnerable to the words of others. Particularly my words.
So I made a promise to myself that day, looking in the mirror and then back at my daughter. I will never speak negatively about myself or critique my body in front of her. I will celebrate women and girls for their intelligence and personalities first, over their bodies and physical appearance.
I owe it to her to do that.
Because society will do its best to counter that – to make her insecure, fell less than, feel that men know best what she should be. Society will knock her down in order to sell her something that will pick her back up. I will do my best to help her build her strength, confidence, self-assuredness, and empathy for others. To build her up so that she will not be knocked down. And so that she may pull others up with her.
This morning, before leaving for work, my husband brought me a hot cup of coffee in bed, snuggled the baby who was waking up beside me, and tucked a heating pad against my back which has been hurting me for the last couple of days. I think I mumbled a sleepy “thanks”. When I got up and walked through the kitchen to top up my coffee, I noticed that he had emptied the recycling and garbage, and done the dishes from the night before.
I said nothing.
About an hour later, I went back in the bedroom to get the baby dressed, and saw my husbands’ dirty socks on the floor. I muttered under my breath something about “…always…damn socks…floor”. And then I stopped. And I thought.
Now, I am not the kind of person who thinks her husband has hero status because he does things like take care of his children or routine household chores. We’re partners in this life. We do what needs to be done, and we take care of each other and the kids (my two steps and our bio daughter). My husband is a better cook than I am, I am better at maintaining the home. Our marriage is a joint effort.
So I don’t thank him for taking the baby while I shower or for changing her diaper blow-outs. I don’t thank him for taking out the garbage or tossing the clothes in the dryer.
Well, as I said, our marriage is a partnership and that’s what we expect of each other. But also it is because I refuse to buy into this discourse of the “hapless, hopeless dad syndrome”. You know, all the memes and videos of dad dressing the baby in a bikini top and snow pants for daycare, or asking the wife where the socks are kept in their house. Sure these can be funny and seem harmless, but I think how “dads” are portrayed in society can have some very real consequences… trickling all the way down to divorce and custody court cases. If dad is seen as a second-rate parent, what does that mean in the bigger picture of single parents, co-parenting, and blended families? How does this impact on his rights and obligations as a father? There seems to be many issues with our court system, and while that’s a big one to tackle, we can all control how we talk about the value and contribution of fathers.
And personally speaking, my husband is an amazing dad. That’s one of the things that really drew me to him, was seeing him with his kids. So I want to build the image of the equal partner, the loving, capable dad. I want that to be the norm, the measuring stick, the status quo. The kind of dad who, in the unfortunate event of divorce, gets 50/50 custody because he is as valuable an influence in his child’s life as the mother.
So when I picked up those dirty socks I thought about this tiny insignificant thing I was dwelling on, and instead thought of all the ways in which he fills that loving, capable role. I sent him a picture of our baby girl (just cause she’s cute as heck), and told him I appreciated him, every day.
It is so easy to get caught up in the minutae of everyday life, and I can’t say I’ll never get mad over dirty socks again (come on, I’m only human). But it’s also so easy to criticize someone or something, and to take the good stuff for granted. So I encourage you to not take the good stuff for granted. Tell your partner that you appreciate them, that you value them for who they are and for what they bring to your family.
And tonight I’m going to make my husband’s favorite meal for dinner as another way to show him that while I may not thank him for the little things, I love and appreciate him for the big things.
With the birth of my little girl three months ago, I’ve reflected a lot on families and family dynamics. In between breastfeeding and changing diapers and reading “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” of course. And I’ve come to realize something. Some of the biggest challenges of steplife boil down to the fact that we are expected to share the love.
Any parent of multiple children will tell you that, of course, love is not a zero sum equation. You don’t love your first born less when you give birth to their younger sibling. There is just more love to go around. But stepfamily dynamics are more complex, and we have to share love in ways that aren’t always easy.
One evening, not long after my daughter was born, my husband jokingly commented that he had to share me now. Something twigged for me, and I realized, I had always been sharing him.
When you have a child, you love that child as an extension of yourself. Automatically, unconditionally. When I see my husband with our daughter, having bonding time, I feel just as connected as if I were in between them like an Erin sandwich (nice visual right? Haha). But when I see him with his two kids from his first marriage, I don’t feel the same way.
Many stepmothers struggle with insider-outsider feelings, myself included, despite the awesome relationship I have with my stepkids. It’s natural. Your partner has shared history, genetics, and time with his children that you do not have. This is not to say that I don’t love them or love seeing them together, because I do, I just don’t feel like I “belong” in the same way. We’re sharing my husband rather than being an interwoven extension of each other.
In addition to sharing your partner with the kids, you’re also sharing him with his ex. In a way. Perhaps sharing isn’t the right word, but very often, she’s… “present”. Whether it’s via email, text, phone, or in person, chances are your partner has some contact with his ex. My husband and his ex talk about the kids – scheduling, school, special occasions, behaviour, and the big one – money, etc… and I completely understand why. But my exes are not present in our relationship in any way, primarily because we don’t have kids together. This “presence of the ex” can range from civil to sticky to downright contentious and volatile.
There are other ways that love is shared in a stepfamily. The bio mom may feel that she is suddenly sharing her kids with your partner (her ex), rather than being a family together. When you come into the picture, she is also sharing her kids with a new woman – this can really get the emotional pot boiling. The children may also experience this sense of sharing love, whether it is sharing time with their mom and dad, or sharing their dad with you as a stepmom. Sigh. It is so complex.
So how do we share love in a way that positively supports these various relationships?
Remember that love is not a zero sum equation… The more people you love, there isn’t less love to go around. Loving a new partner doesn’t take love away from the kids.
Understand that supporting love between others can strengthen your own relationships… For example, supporting your partner in his relationship with his children can make your romantic relationship stronger because he’s feeling more at ease and happier as a father. Make sure he spends one-on-one time with his kiddos.
If you add an “ours” baby to the family, don’t worry that there will be less love for the new addition… Focus on the new relationships that are forming (the baby with mom and dad, and the baby with his/her stepsiblings). Foster those new relationships and it will benefit everyone in the end.
Be gentle with yourself and others… Don’t force relationships that aren’t ready to develop. You won’t automatically love your stepchildren, because they are strangers when you first meet them. Allow the relationship to grow at its own pace. Similarly, don’t force a friendship with the ex. Be kind, be civil, but take it slow. Make sure your partner knows you are there to support him as a father, and always ask for what you need from your relationship.
So yes, we do share love. But when we do so thoughtfully and respectfully, we may find that love is suddenly multiplied… bigger than ever.
Today marks 40 weeks of pregnancy for me… full term and ready to go! I look forward to posting the news of our new arrival. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been busy getting everything ready (read: washing tiny clothes, knitting tiny hats and booties, bouncing on a yoga ball, sleeping haha)! So I have a guest blog today written by Jessica Rose, all about introducing a new baby girl to her older siblings. Enjoy, and the next time you see a post it will include the details on Baby Grace!
Excited about a new baby girl to introduce to her future brothers, I went and purchased baby dolls for them. I had read somewhere (I’m sure a product of some late night googling) that I could start out this new introduction with some baby dolls. Imagine my horror, when I watched my precious twins turn their respected dolls into swords as they play fought as though they were in a Game of Thrones episode. Completely horrified, I wondered how adding a new baby would affect our family. Would I be able to go to the bathroom without worrying about baby and her brothers being in the same room?
It’s funny that we end up creating the worst possible scenario of things in our heads before they even happen. The truth is, all that worrying and late night anxieties, were for nothing. When my daughter was born, the piece of our family, that I didn’t even know was missing, fit perfectly. Sure, it was not without growing pains and lessons, but looking at where our family is today, we are the team I had always hoped we would be.
The first lesson I learned when introducing a new baby was choosing my battles. Kids are just learning about their feelings and so instead of being able to articulate how they feel about this new change, they may act out. Kids can be impulsive, and sometimes when they act out, it is not to get you upset, it is because they want attention or they may not know how to express what they are feeling. You can loosen the rules a bit, but stand your ground. Remember to always be patient.
Be sure to spend some one-on-one time with your older child(ren). Sure, babies can be all consuming, but it is important to focus on your older children, without the new baby to distract you – when you can manage it. Maybe set a date on the calendar for them to look forward to and plan what they want to do. Another suggestion is to take moments in the day when it can be just you and your older child. This can be as simple as giving them a bath at night or reading them a story before bed. They will truly appreciate the effort and your undivided attention.
Encourage the older child to help with the new baby. A family is like being part of a team and no one wants to feel like they’re being left out or are not needed. Give them responsibilities and duties just for them. Include them in helping to feed and dress the baby, throwing away the diapers, or even singing to the baby. Your children may also love to read to the baby, even if they can’t read and just make up their own stories. Making sure that they are involved is a great way to help them accept the new family and changes. You may be surprised at how seriously they will take their role as a new older brother or sister.
Ah the holidays! A time of magic and wonder, of peace and joy, of sugar plum fairies and reindeer hooves…
Oh, I almost got through that with a straight face! What is a sugar plum fairy exactly?
It is my favorite time of year, but still, it is more likely to be filled with my badly-wrapped gifts and burnt sugar cookies. It is a time of love, family, and happiness, but a stress-free Christmas is a rare beast. For stepfamilies, the holiday season can pose some extra challenges and considerations.
This year, I posted this “12 Tips for Holiday Peace” series on Facebook and Twitter. In case you missed one, or want to make the most of your five minutes of free time (in between the parking lot traffic jam and whipping butter and sugar together), here they are in one scroll-able document!
Tip 1: Plan in Advance
It is often the “unknown” that causes stress, so sit down with your partner and make a plan – be sure to coordinate with the biological mom.
Tip 2: Loosen Schedules (a little bit)
We can get very “schedule focused”, especially when we see kids part-time. Remember that they are on vacation too, so loosening the “reins” a little won’t do any harm. “Okay, one more Christmas movie!”
Tip 3: Give Yourself a Break
Have you seen National Lampoons Christmas Vacation? A Christmas Story? Home Alone?? Things may go awry, and all you can do is plan and prepare. And have a sense of humor. And beware BB guns. And count your children. And stock up on wine…
Tip 4: Respect Old Traditions
Keep some consistency for the stepkids by working some of their favorite traditions into your new family dynamic. Choose what works for you too, as outsider feelings for stepmoms can be strong at Christmas.
Tip 5: Start New Traditions
New family dynamics need new traditions! We started giving the kids a Christmas Eve box with new PJs, hot chocolate and a movie which we watch together that night. It’s a simple thing, but it helps define our little family.
Tip 6: Side-by-Side Activities
For a new, or not particularly close relationship with stepkids, side-by-side activities are great! You can bake cookies, or decorate the tree. The kids and I still decorate the tree each year (and when they go to bed I rearrange the ornaments… don’t judge).
Tip 7: You don’t have to be Santa
If you do not have a close relationship with your stepkids, let your hubby do the shopping for them. You can do things for the family – baking, organizing charity donations – but if it doesn’t feel right, don’t play Santa.
Tip 8: Remember your Marriage
You’re a stepmom for a reason – you fell in love with a man with kids. In all the holiday rush, take time for the two of you. He might be upset if he doesn’t see his children much, so remind him of your support and that you’re a team.
Tip 9: Self-Care
This is important 365 days a year, but especially at Christmas when we can get overwhelmed with shopping, wrapping, hosting… Carve out time for you – a quiet night in, date with a friend, long walk in the snow. You can’t pour from an empty vessel!
Tip 10: Get out and have FUN
It’s not all about gifts! Family time is precious. We love to toboggan with the kids during the holidays – getting bundled up, racing down the hill, trudging back up to the top… over and over! We come home cold and exhausted and it’s wonderful.
Tip 11: This year is NOT last year
Repeat after me – this year is not last year. Do not start planning with a sense of dread over what did or didn’t happen before. THIS year has not happened yet. Fresh year, fresh tree, fresh slate.
Tip 12: Practice Peace
There can be a lot of tension and stress for stepfamilies around the holidays. It can benefit everyone (especially you) to practice peace. Try to see the positive, do not buy into drama, and take care of yourself.